Mud slings over chicken-swinging rite (extracts)
Ben Harris, JTA. Oct 12 2008
PETA’s kapparot video
On the night before Yom Kippur last year, animal rights activist Philip Schein says he was physically threatened when he showed up in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn for the annual kapparot ritual. An undercover investigator with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Schein long has been concerned about kapparot, or kapporos, in which chickens are swung over one’s head in a symbolic transferring of sins a day before Yom Kippur. Schein says he identified himself as a PETA member and was filming the ceremony when several people physically harassed and threatened him. “It was just fortunate that there were police around,” Schein told JTA. “They said I have the right on a public street. I wasn’t disrupting anything. Who knows what would have happened if they weren’t there?” Fearing a repeat, Schein grew a beard and donned a cap in an effort to better blend in with the Lubavitch Chasidim who mount a massive kapparot operation each year in Crown Heights. Last week, shortly before 10 o’clock on the night before Yom Kippur, Schein and his wife, Hannah, also a PETA investigator, set out to monitor this year’s kapparot.
The Oct 8 scene in Brooklyn and the ritual at its center may seem inhumane and somewhat bizarre. Amid a carnival-like atmosphere featuring food vendors and street sellers, the largely Chasidic crowd lines up to purchase live chickens from a truck. With a wing and a prayer book in their hands, the Chasidim shlug, or swing, the birds around their heads while reciting a prayer before lining up to have the chickens ritually slaughtered. It’s all in full view of Eastern Parkway, a teeming thoroughfare that is the headquarters for the Lubavitch movement. Organizers estimate upward of 10,000 chickens are slaughtered in the street during the ritual, which winds down at sunrise. Chickens are placed in inverted red traffic cones after they are killed so their blood can run down. Once the chickens stop moving, which can take several minutes, they are transferred to garbage bags and piled on the sidewalk. Processing takes place in a cramped alley behind the Hadar Hatorah Rabbinical Seminary on Eastern Parkway. With an electric saw, the birds’ heads and legs are removed. A group of yeshiva students then pulls off the feathers and passes the chickens to the mashgiach, or kashrut supervisor, who removes their intestines for inspection. Those deemed kosher are then soaked and salted and placed in a freezer. All the chickens are then given to charity, says Rabbi Shea Hecht, a prominent figure in the Lubavitch movement and one of the main organizers of the kapparot event in Brooklyn.
Hecht’s prominent role in organizing the kapparot has made him a target of PETA. After years of investigating kapparot, PETA asked the New York State Kosher Law Enforcement Division in August to open a fraud investigation against Hecht. As Yom Kippur approached, PETA also issued an action alert to its followers, which led to a flood of emails and faxes to Hecht’s office. Hours before the ritual was set to begin, Hecht issued a statement condemning the PETA campaign, which he claimed had led to some “threatening” and anti-Semitic e-mails. NYC Police reportedly opened an investigation. The Scheins claim that the volume of birds slaughtered far outstrips processing capacity, resulting last year in some two-thirds of the birds being discarded in Dumpsters. Organizers are violating two Jewish injunctions, the Scheins say — against causing unnecessary suffering to animals and against wastefulness. Hecht adamantly denies both charges and says Schein made up the two-thirds figure. “He’s a liar,” Hecht said last week. “Their agenda is to wipe out shechita — period. No. 2, their agenda is to hurt Torah-observant Jews.” As evidence, he cited PETA’s targeting of him as the most visible proponent of kapparot. “If they take me down, everybody else is going to stop doing it,” Hecht said.